Causes and risk factors of mouth cancers

Written by Dr Amrita Jain

Medically reviewed by  Dr. Vidhi Bhanushali Kabade BDS, TCC

Last updated May 4, 2024

Written by Dr Amrita Jain

Medically reviewed by  Dr. Vidhi Bhanushali Kabade BDS, TCC

Last updated May 4, 2024

Oral cancer is one of the most common cancers in India. This is because cancer-causing agents are freely available and consumed in high quantities. Cancer is the uncontrolled growth or mutation of our own cells. Certain bad habits or chemicals, damage our DNA, and cause cellular mutations. Some of the causative factors cause the cells to undergo transformation and turn them into cancer cells. Here are some of the causes of mouth cancer out of which tobacco and alcohol intake are the two most important causes.


Tobacco in any form, be it smoking, chewing gutkha, snuff or misri is one of the main causes of mouth cancer. The nicotine content in the tobacco makes it addictive and dangerous and with long-term use, irritates the oral tissues and causes cancer. Studies show 80% of oral cancer patients are users of tobacco.


Alcohol being a strong irritant doesn’t just damage your liver, but also your mouth and oesophagus.  All forms of alcohol including hard liquor wine and beer have been implicated to cause or have the potential to cause oral cancers. Excessive consumption will keep on irritating our tissues and turn into cancer.

The risk of getting oral cancer is even higher if you smoke or chew tobacco along with drinking. 70% of mouth cancer patients are heavy alcohol drinkers, so stop the consumption of excessive alcohol.

Reverse smoking

This kind of smoking is where the burnt end of the tobacco leaf is put in the mouth rather than the unlit end of the cigar. Reverse smoking is practiced in some parts of Andhra Pradesh, India and the Philippines. This form of smoking is very dangerous and is considered a risk factor in causing oral cancers.

Beetle nut /Arecanut 

Beetle nut or supari is as bad as tobacco in causing oral cancer. It has a compound called Arecoline, which is a carcinogen. Beetle nut is often combined with tobacco or lime for paan and stuffed into the corners of the mouth. Lime or chuna is extremely caustic and combined with the beetle nut is the perfect cancer-causing cocktail. So think twice before having paan the next time.

Human papilloma Virus (HPV)

HPV is a group of viruses that spread through sexual contact. They enter your body and live in soft moist tissues like mouth, cervix, anus and throat. They do not show any symptoms in the mouth. Just hide in your tissues and keep irritating your cells, causing them to turn into cancer. The risk of getting oral cancer from HPV is even higher if you smoke or drink. So use protection or get an HPV vaccination.

Atmospheric pollution

Increasing head and neck cancer cases in the urban areas are mostly related to the increasing pollution. Though pollution does not directly cause oral cancers but the sulphur dioxide that is released in the air is a potential risk factor to cause cancers of the larynx and pharynx.

Prolonged sun exposure/ UV radiation could cause cancer

This type of cancer arises from the deepest layer of the skin mostly on the exposed surface of your skin, middle third of the face and scalp. The UV radiation is responsible for causing mutations in the cells and transform them into cancer cells. Sometimes it may involve the upper lip too. It usually starts as a mouth ulcer and then spreads to the surrounding areas and then deeper into the skin.

Actinic radiation

This type of radiation is responsible for causing lip cancers. It usually affects people with outdoor occupations such as farming and fishing and mostly affects fair skinned people.

Blue collar workers

Blue collar workers exposed to dust or inhalation of various organic or inorganic agents or even dust particles, are at much higher risks to developing cancers of the mouth.

Sharp tooth irritation

Sharp tooth irritation from a long time due to broken or a chipped tooth could also irritate the tissues on your inner lining of the mouth and can turn into cancerous lesions. Habitual cheek biting or lip biting if done repeatedly could also irritate the tissues and may promote the cells to undergo transformation and turn into cancer.  Any sharpness from any dentures, retainers or any other prosthesis could also result in the same.

Vitamin-A deficiency

Vitamin-A is very important for repairing the lining of your oral cavity. It produces excessive keratinization and protects the inner layers of the mouth. Deficiency of vitamin-A can make way for cancerous lesions to occur in the mouth.

Ionizing radiations

Cancers of the buccal mucosa that is the inner lining of your cheeks may occur as a complication of long term radiotherapy.

Family history and genetics play a role in mouth cancers

Like most cancers, mouth cancers can also run in the family. Habits like smoking, drinking, or exposure to HPV increase the risk of mouth cancer in people with familial history. So if you have a history of mouth cancers in your family, stop these habits at the earliest.

Oral hygiene

Poor oral hygiene will put you at a greater risk of getting mouth cancer.  A non-healing chronic ulcer is one of the most common indicating sign of mouth cancer. So do not ignore any of these minor dental problems for a long period of time.

Remember that prevention is better than cure. So avoid these bad habits and keep your mouth and body healthy. Don’t forget to brush twice a day and floss regularly to maintain your oral health.

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Author Bio: Dr. Amrita Jain is a practicing dental surgeon since 4 years. She completed her B.D.S in 2016 and was has been a rank holder throughout her course. She suggests “Holistic dentistry is the best dentistry”. Her treatment line follows a conservative pattern which means saving a tooth is of utmost priority and preventing your teeth from getting decayed rather than curing it with a root canal treatment. She inculcates the same while consulting her patients. Apart from her interest in clinical practice, she has developed interest in research and writing over a period of time. She states “It is my clinical experience that motivates me to write and spread dental awareness”. Her articles are well researched with a combination of technical knowledge and clinical experience.

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